As a graphic designer, I found the Ballyhoo! Poster show at the National Portrait gallery very worthwhile. It gave credibility to design as an art form, as the show was surrounded by the elaborate oil paintings of famous musicians, presidents, and just plain wealthy people that are without a doubt considered art. To have posters displayed in such close proximity to these wonderful works of art made the general public really look at design, possibly for the first time. It made these people notice the composition, the color choices, and the mood of the piece as they would a painting by Rembrandt.
Among the vast array of posters on display, one in particular grabbed my attention. Maybe it was the simplicity of the composition, maybe it was the woman herself. The poster was a celebration of life and color set against the black background of a stage curtain. The wild, red hair of the pale woman was thrown back in dance, and she was draped in a sheer, golden gown. One of her legs was kicked up, and she appeared to be suspended in the air with her dress floating in circles around her, like she has just completed a spin in the air and is now returning to earth.
The woman’s name was Mary Louise Fuller (also called La Loïe Fuller), an American performer who was quite popular in Paris around the turn of the century. She was a master showman who pioneered colored stage lighting and used enormous, silk costumes to exaggerate her movements on the stage. She demonstrates the Art Noveau movement as her flowing costumes appeared on stage like flowers and other things found in nature. She was also the first person to bring modern dance to Europe and present it as a true art form.
I feel this poster has captured the essence of Fuller’s performances. She appears here free and full of life, just like her performances were, I would imagine. You can even faintly see the colored stage lighting in the background, which she invented. The only text on the poster is the name of the performer, La Loie Fuller (at the top), and the place she will be performing at, Folies-Bergère (at the bottom), a Paris opera house where nudity was not uncommon. The text was red and had an organic feel to it, coordinating well with the image, and with its rough, cut-out look, appeared to be hand made.
I think that it was very appropriate that this poster show was in a portrait gallery. These posters are absolutely portraits of the people they depict, but not only that, they are a portrait of the time in which they were made. Posters give the viewer more information than other portraits do, they tell the viewer not only about the person or people shown, but about the time it was created, about the poster’s intended audience, even about the location the poster was to be displayed in. This proves that not only are posters, and consequently graphic design as a whole, art, they are a seamless balancing act between giving the viewer information and giving the viewer something that they want to stop and look at. That is what good design does.